The Gripes: First-Round NHL Playoffs Preview

The most exciting two months in sports gets off and running in short order. Sounds like a perfect time for The Gripes to give you a quick preview of each series, before putting on the prognostication hat and telling you who I think ends up surviving round one. Away we go:

Western Conference-

#1 Vancouver vs. #8 Los Angeles: These two teams have done battle in the past in the postseason. I originally predicted this to be the Western Conference Finals matchup. Jonathan Quick could absolutely steal this series for the Kings, but I don’t see that happening. The talent for the Canucks will prevail.

Prediction: Canucks in 6

#2 Saint Louis vs. #7 San Jose: The Blues overachieved in the regular season. The Sharks underachieved in the regular season. For the Sharks, though, the postseason is all that matters. If they had put themselves in a better position in the standings, maybe I could see them doing damage in the playoffs. But they are running into a disciplined team with a strong system. It won’t be pretty, but the Blues will find a way.

Prediction: Blues in 7

#3 Phoenix vs. #6 Chicago: The Blackhawks have been here and done it before. But Jonathan Toews’ injury concern puts their scoring into doubt. The Coyotes have been here but haven’t done it in the postseason. They have the hottest goalie in the league right now, though, in Mike Smith. I can’t guarantee that he’ll carry them through the playoffs. But he’ll do enough in this series to get the Coyotes to round two.

Prediction: Coyotes in 7

#4 Nashville vs. #5 Detroit: The Predators went for it this season, and sure look like the hottest team in the West coming into the playoffs. The Red Wings limp into the playoffs, looking older and less ready for a tough series. Detroit would love nothing more than to prove everyone wrong once more. They’d have to prove me wrong, too. I’ll take the hot team.

Prediction: Predators in 7

Eastern Conference-

#1 New York vs. #8 Ottawa: This was an unexpected last-minute matchup. The Rangers pretty much led the East from December on, getting to leave it in cruise control for most of the second half. The Senators threatened to steal the Northeast Division title from the Bruins, but fell back at the end. Craig Anderson has shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs before, but Henrik Lundqvist is the best goalie in the league still. Lack of scoring depth may hurt the Rangers, but not yet.

Prediction: Rangers in 5

#2 Boston vs. #7 Washington: Boston was surely expecting to face the Senators in round one. The Caps managed to sneak into this matchup with a strong final week. Tim Thomas may be on fumes at this point, and if he stalls out, the Bruins are done. I think they survive this series, though, because the Caps are weak in goal, and they can’t take enough advantage of Boston’s weaknesses.

Prediction: Bruins in 5

#3 Florida vs. #6 New Jersey: The high-scoring Devils take on the tough-minded Panthers. Don’t sleep on this series, although that will be your inclination. Florida’s Island of Misfit Toys has a fair amount of playoff experience, so they will hang in. But the depth of scoring in New Jersey will prove to be too much for Florida to handle.

Prediction: Devils in 6

#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Philadelphia: The cross-state rivals will be meeting for the third time in five playoff years. Both teams have firepower, both teams have experience, both teams have solid defense. The difference? One team has a proven playoff goaltender. The other has a potential head case that has massively struggled in past playoff seasons. That’s enough reason for me to go with the flightless birds.

Prediction: Penguins in 6

This should be a strong first round, with no series that looks likely to be over in four games. I hope it lives up to that high expectation.

The Gripes: The East, In Review

The NHL regular season is over, and the Gripes has returned to look back at how well (and poorly) my predictions went for the 2011-12 season. I already weaved my way through the West. This time, a look back at the East.

Eastern Conference

15. Montreal Canadiens (78 Points, 5th–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 12th in East, 4th in Northeast

Why I Didn’t Go Far Enough: I knew the Canadiens were due for a downturn. I just didn’t know the downturn would be on an epic scale. Everything went wrong. Carey Price didn’t play well enough, the team couldn’t get consistent goal-scoring, and the defense was never able to come together. Off the ice, things were a mess, too. An assistant coach was fired right before a game, the head coach was fired, the GM pulled a player from a game (in the middle of it) to trade him, and then finally the GM himself was let go. It’s a messy situation, to say the least. The new broom coming in will sweep clean, but it was too late to fix them this season.

14. New York Islanders (79 Points, 5th–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 9th in East, 4th in Atlantic

Why I Was Too High On Them: I knew the offense would be there. I knew the defense would be average at best. I just happened to think that the goaltending situation would be figured out quickly, mainly due to the inevitable Rick DiPietro injury. The injury happened, but Evgeni Nabokov was hurt for a time, and that made the team struggle too much. It also didn’t help that the four teams from their division finished with 100+ points each. It’s a tough division for a team like this one, and that led to their downfall in the standings.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs (80 Points, 4th–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 10th in East, 3rd in Northeast

Why I Overrated Them: I mistakenly thought that the Maple Leafs would finally figure things out in goal. That is the big reason why this team fell apart down the stretch. They had the scoring, and played serviceable defense. The goaltending never gave them a chance, though. And this will be a weakness for a while for them, it appears. It would also help if they could get a couple decent centers. But that isn’t what killed this season for them. The men between the pipes did that.

12. Carolina Hurricanes (82 Points, 5th–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 7th in East, 3rd in Southeast

Why I Was Dead Wrong: The team struggled mightily right out of the gates. Paul Maurice was fired (again). The team continued to struggle. They never could find consistency in any aspect of the game. Nothing very exciting to talk about with this squad. Moving on.

11. Winnipeg Jets (84 Points, 4th–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 13th in East, 4th in Southeast

Why I Was Right, Sorta: The Zombie Thrashers ended up close to where I expected them to, but got there in a very unexpected way. I expected them to struggle all season long, never get it together, and finish in the bottom of the standings. Instead, they played amazing at home (especially early), and a lot of early-season home games got them up the standings for a long time. Eventually, the team’s play started to slip, too many road games caught up with them, and they plummeted out of playoff contention. The team’s home ice advantage will help them in the future. But it didn’t help them enough this season.

10. Tampa Bay Lightning (84 Points, 3rd–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 4th in East, 2nd in Southeast

Why I Was A Freaking Idiot: I thought that the team’s goaltending would hold up. Big surprise that 97-year-old Dwayne Roloson and career backup Mathieu Garon couldn’t get it done. Stamkos and St. Louis got it done for them, but they couldn’t prevent pucks from going in their own net. This is a team that could recover quickly, but they need to fix the massive hole in goal.

9. Buffalo Sabres (89 Points, 3rd–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 5th in East, 2nd in Northeast

Why I Was A Freaking Idiot Again: This team just could not right their ship until it was far too late. This team was in last place in the conference in the middle of February. Miller couldn’t lift up the team when he was healthy. The high-priced acquisitions struggled to assimilate. And the best players on the team didn’t play like the best players. They made a late charge, and nearly made the playoffs, but they didn’t deserve that, honestly, and they just fell short.

8. Ottawa Senators (92 Points, 2nd–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 15th in East, 5th in Northeast

Why I Must Hang My Head In Shame: Ottawa actually slid back at the end of the season. They would have made me look worse otherwise. The team really came together, and did so quickly. Craig Anderson played well early, the offense provided enough scoring, Erik Karlsson became a household name, and the Sens rose to the top of the East early on. They started to slide down the standings as the season went on, though. This may be leading to a quick exit from the playoffs. But they earned their spot in the playoffs.

7. Washington Capitals (92 Points, 2nd–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 1st in East, 1st in Southeast

Why I Might Want To Quit Predicting Things: The Caps struggled early in the year, leading to a coaching change. And removing Boudreau for Dale Hunter actually proved to be a terrible decision, because Hunter has proven not to be an NHL coach. The team has had struggles and injuries, especially in goal. It also didn’t help that Nick Backstrom was out half the season, and Alex Ovechkin had a massively inconsistent season. They pulled it together to make the playoffs, and ultimately, their performance in the playoffs will dictate whether the season is a success, but they definitely haven’t put themselves in a position to win in the playoffs.

6. New Jersey Devils (102 Points, 4th–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 11th in East, 5th in Atlantic

Why I Really Suck: I felt like Martin Brodeur was done. I was wrong. He played well enough, with a good defense in front of him, and the Devils got a ton of offensive support. This isn’t your older brother’s Devils team. Kovalchuk, Parise, Clarkson, Elias, and Sykora all scored more than you expected, and Adam Henrique made a huge impact in his rookie season, filling in for an oft-injured Travis Zajac. All of this led to a strong showing for the team, and a record that would have landed them in first place in the other two divisions.

5. Philadelphia Flyers (103 Points, 3rd–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 8th in East, 3rd in Atlantic

Why I Kinda Missed, But Kinda Didn’t: I felt like the Flyers hurt themselves a bit short-term in the offseason, trading away proven players for a younger and deeper team in the future. The future happened to be right now. This is a good team, especially offensively. So many players that are capable of scoring up and down the lineup. The defense, however, is thin, which could create a problem. And the biggest problem has been in goal. They spent a ton of money to bring in Ilya Bryzgalov, and he has been inconsistent, at best. He needs to get his act together for the team to go anywhere in the playoffs. In the meantime, he did enough to get the team into 5th spot in the East, which is nothing to look down at.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (108 Points, 2nd–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 2nd in East, 1st in Atlantic

Why I Just Missed: The Penguins played well for most of the season. Any team that finishes with 108 points doesn’t get there by accident. Malkin and Neal played well together all season. Fleury had a great year between the pipes. And Kris Letang would have been a Norris finalist, if he was healthy all season. Add in Sidney Crosby at the end of the season, and the team is a huge threat going into the playoffs. They only fell short of the top of the division because the team ahead of them ran away and hid with the lead.

3. Florida Panthers (94 Points, 1st–Southeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 14th in East, 5th in Southeast

Why I Missed By A Mile: The Island of Misfit Toys found a fit together in south Florida. They did it by committee, and it worked. Well, it worked well enough to get them the championship in a weak division. I don’t know that it will work in the playoffs. I don’t know that it will work next season, but this year, Kevin Dineen’s team found their way to the playoffs.

2. Boston Bruins (102 Points, 1st–Northeast Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 3rd in East, 1st in Northeast

Why I Was In The Right Church, Wrong Pew: Boston looked like the best team in hockey during the month of December. That allowed the team to coast to a division title. They did not look great all the time, though. And without Tuukka Rask down the stretch, due to injury, Tim Thomas proved to be human, and an old human at that. This may not bode well, long-term, both in the playoffs and in future seasons. But for this year, the #2 seed is a good place to be.

1. New York Rangers (109 Points, 1st–Atlantic Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 6th in East, 2nd in Atlantic

Why They Exceeded My Expectations: I thought they would be decent, with a good defense, and very good goaltending. Instead, they ended up great, with a great defense, and fantastic goaltending. Lundqvist will win the Vezina. McDonagh and Girardi played at a high level. And the team got enough scoring. They will need more scoring in the playoffs, but for the regular season, they got enough.

So, what have we learned from looking back at the East? I got very little right. I maybe should give up on this predicting stuff.

Screw that. I’ll see you next season.

The Gripes: The West, In Review

Six months ago, yours truly stepped up to the keyboard and boldly predicted the way that the NHL’s conferences would shake out over the course of 82 games. Now that everything has played out, has Mr. Gripes proved to be a prognosticator extraordinaire? Or will Mr. Gripes be hanging his head in shame? Let’s find out, first looking out to the West.

Western Conference

15. Columbus Blue Jackets (65 Points, 5th–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 15th in West, 5th in Central

Why I Was Correct: Things started off rough for the Jackets, and they never got better. James Wisniewski’s suspension at the start of the season really hamstrung the defense, getting the team off to a slow start. Steve Mason proved to truly not be the answer in goal for the future. Jeff Carter proved to be a horrible fit in Columbus. And with the things that occurred at the trade deadline, Rick Nash appears to be on his way out in weeks. This franchise sure looks like a mess going forward. No surprise that they finished DFL this year.

14. Edmonton Oilers (74 Points, 5th–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 13th in West, 5th in Northwest

Why I Was (Mostly) Correct: The Oilers’ deficiencies and strengths were as predicted. They struggled in goal, got inconsistent play on defense, and had decent offense that was streaky at times. The youth of the Oilers, especially on the front end, keeps gaining experience, and they looked brilliant at times. At other times, they looked overmatched. This could be a good team, if they get the defense and goaltending figured out, but since they haven’t yet, the bottom of the standings is where they continue to land.

13. Anaheim Ducks (80 Points, 5th–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 7th in West, 3rd in Pacific

Why I Was Wrong: Plain and simple, they were the worst NHL team west of Columbus for the first half of the season. They dug themselves a massive hole, and it cost Randy Carlyle his job. Bruce Boudreau came in, and the team had a massive turn-around in the second half. But the massive hole couldn’t be un-dug. So, the team landed here, and they have a lot of work to do in the offseason to fix the issues that exist.

12. Minnesota Wild (81 Points, 4th–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 9th in West, 2nd in Northwest

Why I Was Right AND Wrong: I knew the Wild would fall short of the playoffs this season. But I expected them to contend much longer than they did. At the same time, I never expected them to be the top team in the league in late November. So, basically, the Wild were better AND worse than I expected them to be. I don’t know what to make of them because of it. No clue at all. But if they get Zach Parise in the offseason, look the hell out.

11. Colorado Avalanche (88 Points, 3rd–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 12th in West, 4th in Northwest

Why I Was Fairly Correct: The Avalanche hung in there the entire season, but they could not get over the hump and stay in the playoff race at the end. And they truly just fell short. They couldn’t get enough scoring, enough defense, nor enough goaltending to elevate the team into the postseason. There are a lot of positives that the team can take out of the season, but they will need to grow as a team to take it to the next step next season.

10. Dallas Stars (89 Points, 4th–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 10th in West, 4th in Pacific

Why I Nailed It: They were actually a little better than I expected, in terms of their point total. But they probably could have used one more scorer in the lineup. It was the concern coming into the season, once Brad Richards moved on to the New York Rangers. Kari Lehtonen played well throughout the season, and the defense was decent. One more offensive talent may have made the difference.

9. Calgary Flames (90 Points, 2nd–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 11th in West, 3rd in Northwest

Why I Was Close (But No Cigar): I knew Kiprusoff would play too much. I figured Iginla wouldn’t be able to score enough. But I didn’t expect them to get nearly enough support from the team’s roleplayers. Kipper played well, but the fatigue did show at times. It didn’t help that his backup was out with an injury for a very long stretch. But this team may be stuck in this rut, because they don’t have a lot of cap space (assuming there still is a cap after this offseason). It will be extremely tough to fix things, short of a major roster overhaul.

8. Los Angeles Kings (95 Points, 3rd–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 2nd in West, 1st in Pacific

Why I Swung And Missed: This team had all the talent to win their division (and in fairness, they were only two points short of winning it). But they clearly had big struggles in reconciling talent with performance. It just never happened for them on the ice, at least not for long enough stretches. They have been coming on of late, making them a potential playoff threat. And with Jonathan Quick, the team absolutely could get rolling if he is playing well. But in a purely regular season sense, the team was an underachiever.

7. San Jose Sharks (96 Points, 2nd–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 4th in West, 2nd in Pacific

Why I Was (Mostly) Wrong: San Jose decided to flip the script on me. Usually, they sit at the top of the conference all season long, finishing impressively. They typically follow that up with an underwhelming playoff performance, typically leading to an early exit. This season, they instead ended up struggling in the regular season, sitting on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff line very late into the year. They managed to pull it together, finding their way to the #7 seed ultimately. But they definitely did not look good doing it. Antti Niemi especially has not engendered confidence, despite a decent stat line. The real test for this team has always been the playoffs. Maybe starting their playoff run in an abnormally low spot will propel them to a big run.

6. Chicago Blackhawks (101 Points, 4th–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 5th in West, 2nd in Central

Why I Just Missed: Chicago never really threatened in the conference this season, due to struggles in goal, health issues for star players, and maddening inconsistency. When the Hawks played to their talent, they were able to beat any team, and they most often did just that. But when the goaltending struggled, or when Toews, Kane, and Sharp were out with injuries, the team struggled against just about any team. Despite all that, they finished 3 points short of gaining home ice advantage in the playoffs.

5. Detroit Red Wings (102 Points, 3rd–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 3rd in West, 1st in Central

Why I Was (A Tad Bit) Wrong: It’s hard to say that the Red Wings underachieved. They set a record for most home wins in a row. They looked like one of the best teams all season long. They were mediocre on the road, but a lot of good teams play well at home and a little less well on the road. The reason why I was a little off had much more to do with two teams that overachieved (ones that will be discussed shortly). The Red Wings are still one of the best in the West, and they showed it throughout the season.

4. Nashville Predators (104 Points, 2nd–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 6th in West, 3rd in Central

Why I Was A Little Off: I expected the Predators to play well this season. But not quite this well. They played well early in the season, and at some point, GM David Poile decided to go for it. And that meant bringing in Andrei Kostitsyn to play with his brother Sergei, bringing in Hal Gill to shore up the defense, and bringing in Paul Gaustad to add more depth to the team. That helped the team climb up the standings, nearly into the top spot in the division. It also helped that they have Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, and Pekka Rinne, all making it very tough to score goals against them. The real test for them will be in the playoffs (as they really went all-in this season). But yet again, Barry Trotz has brought his team to a high level, higher than even I expected.

3. Phoenix Coyotes (97 Points, 1st–Pacific Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 14th in West, 5th in Pacific

Why I Couldn’t Have Been More Wrong: The team overachieved massively throughout the season, in just about every phase of the game. Dave Tippett’s coaching certainly had a big influence, but the forwards played above their heads, allowing the team to finish in the top half of the conference in goals per game. The biggest overachiever, however, was between the pipes. Mike Smith took control of the goaltending situation for the team, and never looked back. He really finished the season strong, catapulting the team into the top spot in the Pacific Division. If his strong play continues, the team may continue its strong play well into May.

2. Saint Louis Blues (109 Points, 1st–Central Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 8th in West, 4th in Central

Why I Didn’t Go Far Enough: I felt I was bold in suggesting that the Blues would make the playoffs. Turns out, I was far too conservative. Ken Hitchcock was installed as coach early in the season, and once he came in, the team sky-rocketed up the standings. Hitchcock’s defense-first philosophy fit in well with the roster of the Blues, and it certainly helped the goaltending tandem behind them. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak had career seasons in their platoon roles. This may cause problems for the playoffs, for obvious reasons, but it brought out the best in the goalies during the season, and that helped the team stay ahead of worthy challengers from Nashville, Detroit, and Chicago.

1. Vancouver Canucks (111 Points, 1st–Northwest Division)

Gripes’ Preseason Prediction: 1st in West, 1st in Northwest

Why I Got This One Right: Short and sweet on this one. Vancouver has the most talent, top-to-bottom, in the conference. Their division isn’t very good. They played the most consistent of any team in the league. No surprise, the cream rose to the top.

So, what have we learned from this look at the West? Some teams made me look like a genius. Others made me look like a blithering idiot. The biggest lesson: Don’t try to make money picking teams’ finishes in the NHL.

The Gripes: Down The Stretch

The Pittsburgh Penguins are headed down the home stretch of the 2011-2012 season, with just 20 regular season games remaining. After 62 games, the Pens sit in 2nd place in the Atlantic Division, and their 77 points are good enough for 4th place in the Eastern Conference. As of this day, that would set them up to have home ice advantage for their first round playoff series, a series that would likely be against their hated cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.

However, that conference positioning is extremely volatile, especially when you look at their upcoming schedule. You have looked at the schedule, right? No? Too busy worried about what the Pens might have done at the trade deadline? No matter. That’s what the Gripes are here for. This week, an exploration of the last quarter of the Pens’ schedule: by the numbers, and with some of my own spin on what you’d expect the Pens to do as they head into the playoffs.

To start with, here are the Penguins’ opponents, in order (CAPS indicate home game, @ indicates road game):

February: 29- @Dal

March: 3- @Col; 5- PHX; 7- TOR; 9- FLA; 11- BOS; 15- @Nyr; 17- @Nj; 18- @Phi; 20- WIN; 22- NSH; 24- @Ott; 25- NJ; 27- NYI; 29- @Nyi; 30- @Buf

April: 1- PHI; 3- @Bos; 5- NYR; 7- PHI

In terms of the breakdown, there are 11 home games and 9 road games on the schedule. There are three back-to-back sets of games. Four of the games are against the Western Conference. And nine of the games are against the Atlantic Division.

To get in-depth, though, let’s look at the strength of this schedule. Doing some quick calculations, the 20 remaining Penguins’ opponents have acquired 1460 out of a possible 2502 points on the season, making for a .584 points percentage. Comparing them to their three division rivals, this is what we see:

Pittsburgh (20 Games): .584 (1460/2502)
New York (21 Games): .557 (1471/2642)
Philadelphia (20 Games): .567 (1421/2504)
New Jersey (20 Games): .572 (1438/2514)

While not a massive difference, there is certainly a difference that exists between the teams as they head down the stretch. The Penguins will have a slightly more formidable challenge in their remaining games, which will make it more difficult for the Pens to not only catch the Rangers for the division title, but to also hang on to their spot in the conference, which may force the Penguins on the road for the first round of the playoffs.

No big deal, you say? Well, this season, it’s important for the Penguins. Just looking purely at wins and losses, the Penguins are 20-10 at home, and 16-16 on the road. That matters over the course of a seven-game series in the playoffs. Home ice matters, to a sizable extent.

I’m crazy, you say? Why wouldn’t the Pens want to drop to 6th in the conference, where they can take on a weaker team that wins the Southeast Division? I never want to see my team purposely aiming for a lower playoff spot. What happens if Ottawa stays hot, as well as Philly and New Jersey, and instead of getting 6th, the Penguins end up falling all the way to 7th? Well, what happens is that the Penguins will be staring down the barrel of the defending Stanley Cup champions from Boston in the first round. The Bruins will just beat the Penguins up for between 4 and 7 contests. Even if the Pens somehow get through that series, survive and advance, the physical toll taken on them will never allow them to get to the Stanley Cup. Be careful what you wish for, Penguins fans.

So, what do I think will happen in these last 20 games? If the Pens stay healthy, they can survive this rough schedule. I don’t think the schedule will allow for them to catch the Rangers, but the Pens should land in the 4 vs. 5 matchup. The #4 seed has served the team well in past seasons. I like their chances if they land there in April.

Griggsy’s Gripes- The Pittsburgh Penguins: A Season on the Brink

It’s been a while since I’ve hurt your eyes and your sensibilities with my writing. But now is as good a time as any to burst back into your lives. Today, the Gripes sets its sights on one thing and one thing only: The Pittsburgh Penguins, A Season on the Brink….

To say the Penguins are struggling would be an understatement. At the halfway point, the Penguins find themselves in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, with 46 points. They are 12 points back of the New York Rangers for 1st place in the Atlantic Division (as well as the Eastern Conference). They sit precariously one point ahead of Winnipeg and two points ahead of the Washington Capitals for that final playoff spot. To break things down further, let’s divide things into three categories….

The Good:

—>The Penguins are one of five teams in the conference with a positive goal differential. The Bruins, Rangers, Flyers, and Maple Leafs also are on the plus side, and those teams are also currently holding playoff spots. Usually, teams on the positive end of goal differential for the season are doing well, and find their way into the post-season.

—>James Neal has been a massive contributor to the team offensively. After a hot start in October (a common feature of a Neal season), many feared that he would cool off as the season wore on (also common for Neal). While his goal-scoring pace has dwindled some, he is still in the Top 10 in goals, as well as being the top power play goal-scorer in the NHL. For a team with notorious power play struggles, Neal’s success with the man advantage has been so important.

—>Marc-Andre Fleury is (at worst) in the top 5 of goaltenders in the NHL, and his play has kept things together defensively (more on that in a moment). His positioning continues to improve, which has made his fundamentals very strong. He also still has the athleticism to make the big saves at key times, even when a goal seems so likely for the opposition. His puck-handling still could be better (even though he’s much better than the average fan gives him credit for), but overall, MAF has been nothing short of stellar between the pipes.

—->Matt Niskanen has made a huge leap in the last 11 months. During his first couple months here, Niskanen struggled greatly at times, leading to many wanting to run him out of town in the off-season. Fortunately, Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma were patient with the defenseman, and that patience paid off in a big way. Niskanen is only behind an injured Kris Letang in defensive scoring, he has the top plus/minus stat on the team, he’s replaced Letang on the top power play unit with no shakiness at all, and has taken on more minutes per game, handling that workload increase with little difficulty. In the last handful of games, Niskanen has been less noticeable, but considering how bad things have looked lately for the entire team, being unnoticed is a positive thing.

—->Also worthy of note: Pascal Dupuis had a great start to the season, with very high point totals, especially in October and November. While Dupuis has faded into his usual secondary role lately, Evgeni Malkin has come to the forefront once again. He has found his way into the Top 10 in points in the league, and continues to be a consistent threat despite being the “last man standing”, in terms of the three well-known centers in the Pens’ lineup.

The Bad:

—->On a macro level (and I am an Economics major, so this is how my brain works), the biggest problem is the lack of consistency. And I don’t just mean game to game. Sometimes, it’s period to period. Sometimes, it’s shift to shift. On occasion, it’s even a problem during shifts. This is mostly a focus and concentration problem, it seems. And that’s a rather large issue, in my eyes. It means that both the coaches and players are failing. The coaches haven’t absolutely hammered home the need to play the same way every time that the players get on the ice. And the players haven’t felt the need to play the same way every time they get on the ice. The most frustrating part of this is that there have been long stretches where the team has looked like the best in the league. Back to back performances against Buffalo and Chicago showed that they have that capability. And there have been other times where they looked just as good, if not better. But then there have been stretches that are so awful, you wonder if this team is capable of making the playoffs. Consistency needs to be the goal. And that goal needs to be achieved.

—->When he was re-signed over the summer, there was an expectation that Tyler Kennedy would get chances as a top 6 forward, and he would deliver on those chances like he showed he could last season. It just hasn’t happened for Kennedy. He missed 11 games early in the season due to injury. When he has played, however, he has not had nearly the same impact he did last season. Only 5 goals in 30 games isn’t nearly acceptable. Zero power play goals, that’s nearly unforgivable. He has had chances, playing with Jordan Staal for most games. Staal has had a great impact, scoring 15 goals on the season. Kennedy’s impact hasn’t been large enough, and due to injuries, his impact needs to increase.

—->Paul Martin’s contract is one of the highest-paying on the Penguins. With that paycheck, the responsibility is very high. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he has to be piling up points, nor does it mean that he has to be a big hitter and shot-blocker on the defensive end. But what it does mean is that he absolutely must be consistent defensively, in sound defensive position, and most importantly not making the big mistakes that lead to goals. Unfortunately, if you’ve watched him play this season, you know that Martin has struggled with that list. Inconsistency is a common theme for Martin. He has missed seven games due to injury/illness, but in the 34 games he has played, he has the worst plus/minus rating on the team. He also has looked lost defensively at times, and has lacked strength on the puck. His defensive partner, Zbynek Michalek, also hasn’t played up to his capabilities, but Martin’s been just horrendous at times, and when you make five million dollars per season, you need to be close to the best defenseman on the team, not close to the worst.

—->Marc-Andre Fleury is a fantastic goaltender, but he can’t play every single game. MAF’s backup is Brent Johnson, and in previous years, he’s been one of the best backup goalies in the NHL. At one point last season, he took over the #1 job from Fleury, and was holding onto it quite capably. This season, however, is a completely different story. Johnson has played in 9 games to this point, and has put up some horrifying statistics. 2-5-2 for a record, with a 3.47 goals against average, and a save percentage of .876, which are hideous numbers. But those don’t even fully capture Johnson’s struggles. He looks like he is flailing at pucks at times, and appears to be off his angles on far too many occasions. The Penguins need Johnson to get them points in the standings when he is between the pipes. Right now, he has only gotten them 6 out of 18 possible points. It’s not nearly good enough. And it might be time for the Pens to move on with a better backup, whether it be Brad Thiessen or an option from outside the organization.

The Ugly:

—->There is only one thing in this category, and it’s the only thing that fits right. It’s the injuries. The Penguins were plagued with bad health last season, with Crosby, Staal, and Malkin only playing 2 games together. And those two games featured Crosby’s first concussion issues. The Penguins thought they had moved on from all their injury woes as they moved ahead to the 2011-12 season. Not so fast, though.

The following is a list (in no particular order) of every Penguins player who has missed time this season due to injury/illness: Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Letang, Niskanen, Asham, Engelland, Martin, Orpik, Kennedy, Park, Michalek, Lovejoy, Despres, Jeffrey, Bortuzzo, Strait.

That is seventeen players. Yes, you read that right. Seventeen. Nearly an entire team worth of skaters. Including the highest-paid, most important skaters on the team. It’s very tough for a team to win games with all those players out. And it’s no surprise that the team is clawing and scratching to get a playoff spot, instead of comfortably sitting in a spot that allows for home-ice in playoff series.

So, with half the season in the books, the Pittsburgh Penguins are closer to last place in the Eastern Conference (10 points in front of the New York Islanders) than they are to first place in the Eastern Conference (12 points behind the New York Rangers). Things appear to be at a breaking point, especially if you read reports regarding the uncertainty surrounding Sidney Crosby at the moment. This could be a complete collapse for the Pens. Or they could rally and find a way to win the division. Or anywhere in between. I honestly think you could sell me on any scenario at this point.

Where do I think it goes from here? I’m usually a realist in my outlook on everything. But I’m an optimist when it comes to the Penguins. So, I’m seeing things finally falling into place. Players get healthy, scoring finally returns, MAF continues to play at his stellar level, and the Pens climb back into the East’s Top 4. If that happens, the rest of the East needs to look out in the playoffs.

In reality, though, the Pens will probably continue to struggle, but will find a way to sneak into the playoffs, then will exit quietly in the first round. All while the Rangers and Flyers make deep runs. And that’s where I take my leave, before I end up vomitting all over myself….

All Things In Time

Wow. That month went by fast.

Since the last update, and that was late October, business has picked up around these parts. The good news: I have really settled into my job and there’s much less insanity surrounding the day-to-day life. I’m still perpetually behind the 8-ball, but that happens. Contrary to popular belief, teaching does not afford a large amount of free time. The last few weeks have been a non-stop barrage of research paper drafts and workshops and staying at school until 7 p.m. I wish I were joking, but it is common for me to be at school, either grading papers or tutoring, until 7 at night.

I don’t want that to be taken as bitching and moaning, though. I love my job. I absolutely love what I do. I am very, very happy with my life right now. All the things I’ve wanted for years — the things I’ve shown patience and sacrificed for — are all coming about in fair turn. I am looking forward, though, to going back to Pittsburgh for Christmas. I did not make it home for Thanksgiving, as our break from school was shortened (we had school on Wednesday, which was poo), but I plan on being in Pittsburgh for a prolonged time at Christmas (read: 2-3 weeks, depending on travel days). This semester is coming to a close very fast. This week coming up is the last traditional week for my juniors (who are taking senior-level courses) because they all have college finals the following week. I’m proud of the work I’ve been able to do, especially with a shortened time frame. These kids lost out on over 6 weeks of instructional time and (most) have risen to the challenge.

Griggsy, too, has undergone some changes. He’s also found himself amongst the employed. Sadly, his employment is largely keeping him dead to the rest of the world. Hopefully he, too, will get settled in and can find a few minutes to share with us his stories.

So, that Sidney Crosby guy is pretty good, right?

 

 

I will be the first to admit, and many saw, that I was wearing thin on patience with Sid prior to his return. I was conflicted because I’d been willing to give him the time and space needed to recover and didn’t want him rushed back, but at the same time he really needed to get into the game. He either was going to play again or he wasn’t, and he needed to make the choice. Thankfully he chose to get back in the game. I cannot even imagine what it was like for Sid, though. Someone with that level of drive and competition having to sit on the sideline all that time…and then get close to return but always consider if another hit like Steckel’s happens it could be the end of the career. I didn’t envy his position, but at the same time, he needed to get back for numerous reasons.

He needed to get back simply for the moral victory to show that concussions can be recovered from if handled properly (I’m looking at you, Boston). He had to come back for the people of Pittsburgh who waited for his return patiently. He needed to get back for his teammates. He needed to get back to lift the NHL. Like it or not, he is the face of the NHL. It’s nearly impossible to market Ovechkin lately, and there really isn’t a player you associate with the post lock-out NHL more than Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin.

But Sid came back. And he made the whole hockey world sit up straight. Much like Tupac, all eyes were on Sid. And he didn’t disappoint. After not playing in a competitive hockey game for 320 games Sidney Crosby returned, on a relatively calm November night, and scored two goals and registered two assists against the New York Islanders. And the world was back in balance.

Of course, there are some who say he came back too early or that he needed to get a stint in Wilkes-Barre to get up to game speed, but I think everything happened as it needed to for Sid. He came back and scored on his first shot. It couldn’t have happened any other way. Of course, the naysayers and roustabouts all had a field day with the second game vs St. Louis, but the team is more than Sidney Crosby and it was a failure as/of a team that ultimately lost that game. And then things seemed like they should be against the up-and-down Ottawa Senators. Good teams like the Pens should completely manhandle bad teams like the Islanders and the Senators. They should find themselves in solid competition against teams like the Blues.

It all comes down to playing a full game. There needs to be preparation for each game. There need to be smart plays. There needs to be passion, too. Sometimes the Pens go a little light in those areas because they are a gifted team with a LOT of top-tier talent. Sometimes they get the wake-up call, sometimes they don’t. Thankfully it’s a long season and when playoffs roll around it isn’t a one-and-done system.

Tonight the Pens face off against Montreal. Presumably Brent Johnson will be in the cage. The magic is gone from Johnson’s game. Let us hope that he can recapture it and get back to the level we know he can play at, otherwise this could be an incredibly long season for the Flower. All things in time.

Failtown – Population: Me

I feel like such a chump. I have not been writing as much as I would like lately, which is unfair to both myself and to all of you. Thank God for Griggsy. He’s been covering up for my punk ass the last week with his Gripes and his unreal look at the Pirates.

I have been doing quite a bit of work behind the scenes in my personal life lately. Nothing has changed, which is a disappointment. The previously mentioned job in NC did not pan out, which is a big time bummer. The job with the civil service is, well, a job with the Civil Service. I did well on the exam and now just need to wait and hope for an opening. Other than those, the job field is, erm, sparse. I’m well aware that this is a unique sentiment and there are a lot of people hurting looking for work. I’ve even been debating about making a career change because things are so hard right now in Education, but I just can’t do it. There are no jobs/careers out there I want to do outside of teaching. I just love it too much to leave, even if it means sticking it out for a while without permanent work.

I do have a few other things cooking. I am looking to pick up another job in the evenings/weekends while I keep working in the schools during the day (and do my night janitorial job on the weekends). I will, hopefully, be moving ahead with life over the next few years as I am, somewhat begrudgingly, planning on going back to school to begin working on my Master’s. I’m debating a few different programs and different schools, but I’m pretty well sold on the general umbrella study of Special Education. I’m going to make my decision over the course of the next month or two. I’ll talk to the schools I’m looking at and see what kind of packages they can put together and go from there.

The pond project, too, is at an end. I am completing the final part of the project this week. The waterfall is the final major obstacle. I have the supplies and have a plan. Once it is completed I will get some nice photos and post those soon enough. I am hopefully going to finish the last of the work on Friday so I can celebrate by watching some Steeler football.

I do have a few other hopeful odds and ends on the horizon, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. The next few years are going to be some interesting times. I’m looking forward to the challenges and being able to spend them with all of you.

-Walt

2011 Pittsburgh Pirates: A Season on the Brink

Foreword: I approached Griggsy the other day about writing an article about the Pirates because he is a much better and more learned fan of baseball than I am or could ever be. It just so happens that we are on similar wavelength regarding the Pirates’ season and the infamous Jerry Meals safe call to end the 19-inning marathon game. I hope Griggsy and maybe even some of you out there will continue to make Avoid the Clap an enjoyable blog and provide some different perspectives on things. Comments are appreciated or you can contact us directly here .

With that, I give the floor to Griggsy.

————

The Major League Baseball season lasts 162 games. It’s by far the longest of any pro sport. Baseball fans will tell you that this makes certain that the teams that deserve to make the playoffs are the ones who get in. They also will tell you that it ensures that no one game makes or breaks a team’s season.

Tell that to the Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans.

In the aftermath of a 4-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves in 19 innings on July 26th (and 27th), the Pirates have gone into a tailspin of epic proportions. That game was the beginning of a stretch of 7 losses in 8 games. The Pirates have gone from a first place tie in the NL Central to being in third place, 5.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers.

All of this, as the result of arguably the worst blown call by an umpire in the history of baseball.

Before I get into that, let me state that I do not like blaming officials. By and large, the players on the playing surface decide who wins and loses. Blaming officiating tends to mask mistakes made by the players that cause them to lose.

But, in this case, the call actually decided who won the game. Not saying the Pirates would have ultimately won the game. This call, however, did not allow the Pirates to win or lose the game on merit. Jerry Meals’ call, which I won’t get into detail because everyone who is reading this either has seen the play or can go find it in 5 seconds, prevented the fair outcome of the game from occurring. After using just about every player on the roster, some for far too long, it’s a massive stomach punch to lose a game in that manner.

Teams tend to get their mettle tested after something of this nature. A lot of adversity is heaped upon a team, with exhausted and frustrated players having to come back to play another game 17 hours later. It’s not as easy for players to put a game like this behind them. It tends to linger or fester, with all the replays shown on TV, and the media wanting to talk about it, and fans complaining about it, and the team’s front office releasing a statement about it, and so on. Men that are taught to have short memories inevitably cannot shake this moment from their brains.

As mentioned, the Pirates have stumbled in the aftermath. A team that stood at 53-47 after 100 games, as they took the field for this 19-inning marathon, now has completed two-thirds of their season, and they are wobbling at 54-54. And in the last eight games, the major problem has been pitching. Before the marathon, Pirates pitchers were giving the team consistent turns through the rotation. Since then, here are the rotation’s results:

7/27- @ATL – L, 2-1 (10 Innings) – Maholm: 7IP, 9H, 1R, 1ER, 0BB, 8K
7/28- @ATL – W, 5-2 – Correia: 6.1IP, 9H, 2R, 1ER, 1BB, 3K
7/29- @PHI – L, 10-3 – Morton: 4IP, 9H, 8R, 6ER, 4BB, 4K
7/30- @PHI – L, 7-4 – McDonald: 5IP, 10H, 5R, 5ER, 2BB, 5K
7/31- @PHI – L, 6-5 (10 Innings) – Karstens: 7IP, 7H, 3R, 3ER, 2BB, 5K
8/1- v. CHC – L, 5-3 – Maholm: 6IP, 6H, 4R, 4ER, 3BB, 3K
8/2- v. CHC – L, 11-6 – Correia: 2IP, 10H, 8R, 8ER, 0BB, 2K

[EN: Per Griggsy’s request, it is to be noted that this was written prior to the loss to the Cubs on 8/3, as such those stats have not been included.]

Now, to be fair, of the seven games after the marathon, there were 3 awful starts, 1 average start, 1 good start, and 2 great starts. But it’s not just the starts themselves. It’s also the workload on the bullpen that is making the pitching staff as a whole fall apart. After the bullpen worked 13.1 of 18.1 innings in the marathon, they were forced to pitch 24.1 of 61.2 innings in the seven games since. For relief pitchers that were thriving on a reasonable number of innings, this change in workload for them has turned the bullpen into a disappointing entity as a whole. This is without even mentioning the inconsistent usage of the best reliever, Joel Hanrahan.

To review, this is now a struggling (at best) rotation, an overworked bullpen, and a confusingly used closer. It’s no wonder that the team has lost 7 of 8 games now. With the offense sputtering along (3.75 runs per game in the last eight, consistent with the 3.84 runs per game average for the season), the pitching has to be similarly consistent with the season totals. Obviously, giving up 5.88 runs per game will not cut it (nearly two full runs over the 3.94 runs allowed per game average for the year).

For those of you looking to take this forward a step, you’d ask how the Atlanta Braves are doing over this post-marathon stretch of games. If the Pirates players are worn out, the Braves played the same game, and would be similarly worn out. This has shown slightly for the Braves, as they are 4-4 over those same eight days, dropping their last three. The fatigue may be catching up with them a little bit now, but it did not in the immediate aftermath. Including the 19-inning game, the Braves went 4-1 right away. The momentum and adrenaline provided by winning that game carried the Braves in the short-term, allowing them to stay afloat despite fatigue issues. This has kept them in control of the NL Wild Card lead, albeit a slightly shrinking lead. Meanwhile, if the Pirates had gone 4-4 instead of 1-7 in these last eight games, they would be sitting in a 2nd place tie in the division, only 2.5 games behind a hot Milwaukee team.

Is the 2011 season over for the Pittsburgh Pirates, at least in terms of playoff contention? Not quite, but it is certainly at the precipice. They are a team teetering on the edge, and one more turn through the rotation with bad results would send them falling away for sure. Jerry Meals’ call didn’t devastate the season for the Buccos, but he has given them a push that may send them falling back to earth, hard, after four months of climbing towards the pennant.

Now For Something Completely Different

I just wanted to take a few moments tonight to say a few personal thoughts. Avoid the Clap has been operating now for two weeks. It has been a truly wonderful experience. Some of you knew me from elsewhere, while others are just getting to know me now, but know this – I love to write, and without having an audience and the feedback I have received, I likely would drop off on writing things nightly or almost every night.

As I mentioned, the blog has only been operating for two weeks so far, but you, the readers, have contributed to 3700 views and over 300 comments. Unreal.

Obviously I am the primary author, but we’ve also got Griggsy and hopefully a few other guest posts coming up as time marches on. If it weren’t for all of you commenting and reading and spreading the word about the blog I likely would have packed it in after the experiment failed. I am here to write both for myself and for all of you. You may not agree with what I have to say, and I can’t promise I won’t say something that won’t rankle some feathers, but I like to hear all views, even if they are different from mine.

I write for you as much as I write for myself. This couldn’t have happened without the encouragement of a few others and I certainly wouldn’t be so committed to keeping the posts coming as regularly as possible. I now spend time thinking about what I want to write about and working on ideas for stories I want to write, knowing I have an audience.

This is for you. I’d be nothing without you.

Let the good times roll.

I will likely be out of commission for the next day or two, so there may not be new posts, but I can tell you I want to get the next Pens Preview up before the week is out and we’ll have a new installment of Griggsy’s Gripes for the weekend.

“The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” – Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith”

Thank you. From the bottom. Tomorrow? It ain’t as bad as it seems.

-Walt

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